The Dark Side of Local Control

During a recent public hearing concerning the nomination of Dogtown for the National Register of Historic Places some expressed the opinion that the City could somehow give up its control over Dogtown as a result of its listing in the registry. In the minutes of the April 9, 2019, City Council meeting there are eight references to remarks made by city councilors and citizens related to local control of Dogtown.

Gloucester has long taken pride in its independence. Giving up local control of Dogtown to the state, the federal government or any other outside organization is anathema to the local culture. Perhaps the earliest expression of this independence was Reverend Blynman’s canal separating Gloucester from the mainland.

It is safe to say that protecting the part of Dogtown that contains the Babson and Goose Cove reservoirs and their watersheds are important to everyone. In 1930 the Babson family deeded land for the construction of the Babson Reservoir and watershed to the City of Gloucester “for the use and enjoyment of the public forever, but on foot only.” At the public hearing, Dogtown constable Joe Orange stated that the watershed should be kept in a “pristine wilderness state” and human involvement minimized. He too cautioned about the loss of local control.

The reservoirs and watershed comprise about 75% of the area of historical Dogtown – the part of Dogtown surveyed by the Public Archaeology Laboratory as part of the National Registry nomination process that contains cellar holes, Babson Boulders, and other features of historical significance. 

But what about the other 25% that is not watershed? That area includes land along Dogtown Road north to Common Road and woodlots north of Common Road that include Whale’s Jaw.

The heart of historical Dogtown. Watersheds are shown in blue and self-help parcels in red along Dogtown Road. The self-help parcels do not have sufficient conservation protections and could potentially be developed.

Past attempts to build a bypass road along the Old Rockport Road were not successful because of its proximity to the Babson Reservoir. An attempt to develop land in the heart of Dogtown between the two watersheds could have a different outcome. 

Several houses were built in the early 1990s on Dogtown Road near Cherry Street. What would happen if a developer convinced the City to build more houses further along on Dogtown Road?

Conservation restrictions specify how a parcel of land can be used. Almost all of the parcels along Dogtown Road were purchased with funds from the State of Massachusetts in 1984 under the “self-help” program. As stated in the program application form “The land which is being proposed for acquisition will be acquired for conservation purposes and deeded as such.” (Click here to see the full text of the self-help program application form.)

Paragraph 5 of the program agreement reads as follows: (Click here to see the full text of the program agreement.) 

“The PARTICIPANT (the City of Gloucester) acknowledges Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution which states in part that: ‘Lands and easements taken or acquired for such purposes shall not be used for other purposes or otherwise disposed of except by laws enacted by a two thirds vote, taken by yeas and nays, of each branch of the general court.’ The PARTICIPANT hereby agrees that any property or facilities comprising the PROJECT will not be used for purposes other than those stipulated herein or otherwise disposed of, unless the PARTICIPANT receives the appropriate authorization for the General Court, the approval of the Secretary of Environmental Affairs, and any authorization required under provisions of Mass. G.L. c. 41, s. 15A.”

This would seem to provide some level of protection for these parcels until we go on to read the next paragraph:

“The PARTICIPANT further agrees that despite any such authorization and approval, in the event that the property or facilitates comprising the PROJECT (‘the acquisition of 127.6 acres of land in Dogtown Common by the Gloucester Conservation Commission’) are used for purposes other than those described herein, the PARTICIPANT shall provide other property and facilities of equal value and utility to be available to the general public for conservation and recreational purposes provided the equal value and utility and the proposed use of said property and facilities is specifically agreed to by the Secretary of Environmental Affairs.”

Herein lies the problem with local (i.e., municipal) control of Dogtown. It is not unreasonable to imagine a scenario in which the City might one day decide that since this land (which is not watershed) is not being used it is of no value to the City as is. Imagine the City with no good solutions for a growing budget deficit voting to approve a developer’s plan and swapping out the parcels along Dogtown Road for an area of equal size somewhere else in Gloucester. It is not unlikely that land of equivalent conservation and recreational value could be found elsewhere in Gloucester. But what about its historical and cultural value? 

One of the older cellars in Dogtown is along a section of Dogtown Road that could be developed.

If the City decided to develop this part of Dogtown the ancient cellars that were among Gloucester’s first homes, the places that inspired Charles Olson, Marsden Hartley, John Sloan, and many others who have enriched our local culture, and the scenic landscapes of the past century would become somebody’s back yard. A development along Dogtown Road would split Dogtown in two. 

Many of Hartley’s landscapes are along Dogtown Road. This section of Dogtown Road inspired Hartley’s painting “Summer Outward Bound, Gloucester.” The Merry pasture in Olson’s “Maximus, from Dogtown” is further along this section of Dogtown Road. All of these places could be lost to commercial development.

In the self-help program application form the City states that “Deed and conservation restrictions will be determined on completion of the title and deed research.” No protections other than that provided by Article 97 were ever added by the City and this should be of concern for everybody who cares about Dogtown. The existing conservation restrictions do not prevent the City from selling land in Dogtown to developers or expanding their own non-conservation use of the compost facility and stump dump. Without additional restrictions simply leaving the non-watershed land in Dogtown alone will eventually invite its development. 

That the City has not added conservation restrictions to these parcels suggests that they may be leaving their options open.

Besides the self-help parcels, the land formerly known as Gronblad’s pit, which was deeded to the City for conservation use is now the site of the compost facility. The City’s use of an adjacent self-help parcel as a stump dump is in clear violation of its conservation status. 

It is unreasonable to expect the City to immediately close and relocate these facilities but a schedule for their closure and relocation should be the first order of business for the City’s newly established Dogtown Preservation Commission. In the meantime, it is important for the citizens of Cape Ann to weight in on this matter before what many think cannot happen does happen, to encourage that these areas be properly used and managed under the current Article 97 provisions and that steps be taken to ensure they are protected in perpetuity from commercial development and municipal misuse. If the City does not take action soon one avenue might be a citizens’ initiative to force the City to either attach permanent conservation restrictions to this land or hold a public vote on the question in the next city election.

The author wishes to acknowledge Noel Mann for her many years of research into the self-help program.

2 Replies to “The Dark Side of Local Control”

  1. Wow having grown up in Riverdale Park I spent many a day walk in Dogtown with my dogs I think it’s one reason why I really enjoy the outside now because I was always in it. I have participated in many cleanups up Dogtown and I hike in Dogtown still as an older adult and I feel the sadness of this open space that clearly needs more love and care than it’s getting.We are a city of so many wonderful minds with so many Awesome ideas. Why can’t we do better for this historical space? We are working to have article 97 protection up held for Mattos Field. It is A fight worth fighting for.


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